In the beginning was the word. What word? In the beginning of humans becoming humans they created concepts expressed in language, i.e. Words. These words have developed into complexities beyond even the Buddha's expectation. We use words to describe the indescribable. We use words to love and to hate. The old saying, "sticks and stones can break my bones but names can never hurt me," shows a deep misunderstanding of what human suffering is all about. Words bruise the psyche and they soothe the psychic beasts and demons. What we think, how we name, our descriptions and actions all contribute to the wondrous and awesome experience of being people. In this copy of Just This, our topic is language/words. We asked folks to use words to speak of words or to paint a picture leaving the words to the viewer. Please join us in the remarkable creative possibilities of our language instinct.
— Seirin Barbara Kohn is the head teacher of the Austin Zen Center, and currently on sabbatical.
The Diamond Sutra begins,
and eating his meal of rice,
the Bhagavan put his robe and bowl away, washed his feet, and sat down.
During his morning rounds sparrows dove from dusty trees
and stole grains of rice from the bowl he held steady for them,
so the seamstress who ladled the rice into his bowl
was feeding the birds who woke her at sunrise, singing
on a branch outside her window.
without a soul.
frayed like a cloak of leaves, burnt oranges and yellows
scored with holes
and their colors blend.
In Baltimore, tribes gather on street corners at dusk
sharing tins of food with mongrels
they’ve saved from sodium pentothal and dogfights.
Devin crashing my place with his gutter punk friends,
stinking of leather, greasy studs and Mohawks
to a high gloss, rooster combs melting in the heat
as we listened to Vic Chestnutt’s “Drunk”,
Years later in D.C. I worked in a furniture store
assembling wrought iron chairs and huge marble tables,
their surfaces shot through with veins of green and black,
like a meteorologist’s chart predicting ceaseless downpour.
During lunch I walked to the stoop on the corner
Floyd smiling as he did the first day
he asked me for change then offered me a drink.
The seams in his face cracked open,
to let the spirits out,
red bandanna tied around his dreads now darkened to rust.
I sat with them as we passed around a forty bottle
observing suits gliding by
My meditation practice has contributed deeply to my writing practice, as both are ways for me to dwell in a stillness that is both generative and a source of renewal. These stillpoints, whether anchored in the emptiness of the blank page or in the canvas of the mind, enable me to engage the contemplative arts as other-expression rather than self-expression. The qualities of patience, compassion, and non-judgement that they cultivate help me to temporarily escape the boundaries of ego and the limited self. As I am about to take the bodhisaatva vows, the intention to dedicate my actions to the liberation of all beings underscores my creative work which explores the connective tissues that bind us to each other and the world, the passionate language of thought and feeling that enlivens our experience. Speaking of the dark, soulful quality he called duende, the poet Federico Garcia Lorca said it is "drawn to where forms fuse themselves into a longing greater than their visible expression." For me, writing and meditation are forms that point to an essence of luminous clarity that is invisible, unfathomable, and infinitely generous.
— Brandon Lamson, a Zen practitioner at the Houston Zen Center, is also a poet and graduate student in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Houston.
by Mark Bykoski
The Soto Zen Buddhist tradition practiced at the Austin Zen Center could be said to come to us from Japan by way of San Francisco. Its more distant origins, however, are fairly complex. To describe its roots chronologically, Buddhism began in India, spread to central Asia, and then to Tibet and China. When Buddhism met with the native Daoist tradition in China, there developed a school known as Chan (禪, from the Sanskrit dhyana, meditation). As Chan spread, it became known as Son in Korea and as Zen in Japan.
As Buddhism spread geographically, it developed different modes of expression in the various cultures where it found a home. Texts traveled and were translated from one language to another. New texts were composed, drawing from the multilinguistic background of the tradition. This process began as Buddhism first started to spread through different regions of India, and it continues in our own culture today.
Here at the Austin Zen Center, we encounter texts and terminology from languages such as Pali, Sanskrit, Chinese and Japanese. This material comes to us through various layers of translation and transliteration, making for a linguistically complex body of scripture and lore.
The earliest extant Buddhist writings are in Pali, a language of ancient India. Pali belongs to the Indo-European family of languages and is distantly related to English and to most of the other languages of Europe. The refuges are often chanted in Pali during retreats at AZC, at the end of the day:"Buddham saranam gacchami... Dhammam... Sangham...." (I take refuge in the Awakened One... in the Teaching... in the Community....). Pali texts may also be encountered in classes at AZC. Sometimes it may be confusing to run across Pali words that correspond to Sanskrit words that we are more familiar with. A few examples:
|dhamma||dharma||teaching; element of experience|
|nibbana||nirvana||"extinction," leaving cycle of birth and death|
|bhikkhu||bhiksu (or bhikshu)||monk|
|arahant||arhat||"worthy," one who has extinguished passions|
|sutta||sutra||"thread," a talk given by the Buddha|
|khanda||skandha||"heap," aggregate, element of sensory experience|
The later Mahayana ("Great Vehicle") tradition that developed in northern India generally used the Sanskrit language (a close relative of Pali) in writing. While Pali was one of a number of regional languages, Sanskrit had for centuries been the main literary language of India. It is Mahayana, with its Sanskrit literature that eventually spread to China and Japan. In addition to the words mentioned above, Sanskrit terms encountered at AZC include, bodhisattva ("enlightening being", one dedicated to the liberation of others), prajna-paramita (perfection of wisdom), and dana (generosity).
Buddhism started to make its way into China in the first century of the Common Era. Most of the many terms of Chinese origin used at AZC are known to us by their Japanese pronunciation. Occasionally we run into words in their Chinese form (transliterated into our alphabet), particularly Daoist philosophical terms such as dao (道,"the way"), and wuwei (無爲, "without doing", effortless action). One text that is chanted in English at AZC is known to us by its Chinese title, Xinxinming (信心銘, Trust in Mind Inscription).
The Chan/Zen teaching stories known as koans (公 案, Chinese: gong'an,"public case") were mostly written in China in the tenth to thirteenth centuries (based on anecdotes reputed to go as far back as the fifth century). They are sometimes studied at AZC in English translation.
The earliest translators attempting to find Chinese equivalents for Buddhist Sanskrit terminology tended to use terms from Chinese philosophy, such as dao (道,"the way") for dharma. Later translators moved away from that approach. The word that was eventually settled on as the standard translation of dharma is fa (法, Japanese: ho), which originally means"law" or"method". In Chinese Buddhist contexts, however, it may be used much the way dharma is used in Sanskrit: to refer to the Buddhist teachings, or to mean"element of experience" or"phenomenon." Translating that term from Chinese (or Japanese) into English, we usually render it using the original Sanskrit word dharma, transliterated into our Roman alphabet. The Chinese also chose to transliterate the sounds of some Sanskrit terms, rather than translate them according to their meaning (for example, niepan for nirvana). The Chinese Buddhist lexicon eventually settled into a combination of translation and transliteration for terms derived from Sanskrit. When Buddhism made its way into Japan, the Japanese generally used the Chinese terminology.
The Japanese did not write their language until they had come into contact with the Chinese. Chinese and Japanese are very different languages, and when the Japanese began to use the Chinese writing system around the fourth century of the Common Era, they did not initially write their own language, but rather learned to write in the Chinese language of the time. The Chinese written characters are called Kanji in Japanese. At some point the Japanese began using certain Kanji for their sound rather than their meaning, to represent syllables of the Japanese language. That system is known as Manyogana. Eventually, in order to make the characters used for their sound distinct from those used for their meaning, the Manyogana characters were stylized to form two different sets of phonetic characters, Hiragana and Katakana. Kanji continued to be used for their meaning, but were now supplemented by Hiragana and/or Katakana to represent all of the grammatical endings and particles that had no equivalent in the Chinese writing system. Modern Japanese usually uses Hiragana for grammatical elements, and Katakana for newer foreign words or for emphasis.
The Japanese not only imported Chinese characters, but a great many Chinese words as well, especially technical terms relating to government, philosophy, religion and the arts. The Japanese pronounced these loan words according to the Chinese pronunciation at the time, adapted to the sound system of Japanese. This is why some Japanese words sound similar to their Chinese equivalents, while other words bear no resemblance. Kanji were used not only to write loan words from Chinese, but also to write native Japanese words according to their meaning. Consequently many Kanji have at least two pronunciations in Japanese. The pronunciation derived from Chinese, used for loan words from Chinese is called On-yomi. The pronunciation for native Japanese words is called Kun-yomi. For example, the character meaning"heart" (心, pronounced xin in modern Chinese) has the On pronunciation shin in loan words such as Shin Gyo (心經, Heart Sutra), but it also can be used to write the native Japanese word for"heart," kokoro, (its Kun pronunciation).
Most of the Japanese technical terms used at AZC are loan words from Chinese pronounced according to On-yomi. (Examples: zendo, zafu, han, kinhin, chiden, mokugyo, tenzo, doshi, shuso, oryoki, shikantaza, dokusan)
The Japanese imported words from Chinese during more than one historical period, with the result that some Kanji have more than one On pronunciation. For example, we pronounce the transcription of Maha Prajnaparamita as"Maka Hannya-haramitta" in the Heart Sutra, but as"Moko Hoja-horomi" in the"Jiho sanshi" chant (the latter appears to be closer to the modern Mandarin pronunciation, Mohe Boreboluomiduo).
Rather than translate the Chinese Buddhist texts into Japanese, the Japanese monks generally chanted and studied the Chinese texts, using Japanese pronunciation. This Chinese language chanted in Japanese is sometimes referred to as"Sino-Japanese." The Maka Hannya-haramitta Shin Gyo, Enmei Jukku Kannon Gyo and the Robe Chant are examples that are chanted at AZC.
In cases where the sound of the original language was believed to have special power, the Chinese chose to transliterate rather than translate certain Sanskrit texts. An example chanted at AZC is Daihi Shin Dharani, a text originally written in Sanskrit, transliterated according to ancient Chinese pronunciation into Chinese characters, and now chanted using Sino-Japanese pronunciation (the end result of that convoluted history does not sound much like Sanskrit).
Some texts chanted or studied at AZC were originally written in Japanese. Sandokai is an example that is chanted in Japanese. The difference from the Sino-Japanese language is readily apparent.
Eihei Dogen, the thirteenth century Japanese Zen ancestor who traveled and practiced extensively in China, and who founded Soto Zen in Japan, wrote in both Chinese and Japanese. His works, some which are characterized by inventive wordplay, are chanted and studied at AZC in English translation.— Mark Bykoski is a member of the Austin Zen Center. He studied Chinese at the University of Maryland and has traveled to China.
by Mark Bykoski
The Chinese text is given in the top row. Below that is the modern Mandarin pronunciation spelled in the Pinyin system, and then the English meaning of each word.
name of an ancient state in China
[suffix for nouns]
|趙州- name of a Zen ancestor; Japanese pronunciation: Joshu||狗子 - dog|
|Zhào Zhōu||héshang |
monk (from sangha)
As for Master Zhaozhou, because a monk asked,
|yě [word separating clauses], also||wú |
not have, (Japanese pronunciation: mu)
"Does even a dog have Buddha nature, or not?"
Zhaozhou said, "It does not."
"Zhaozhou's Dog" is the first koan in the Wumenguan (Japanese: Mumonkan; often translated as the Gateless Gate or Gateless Barrier; or to put it more architecturally, the Gateless Gatehouse), a collection of koans with commentaries written in China in the thirteenth century of the Common Era by Wumen Huikai (Japanese: Mumon Ekai). A koan (Chinese: gong'an, "public case") is a story that is used in the Zen Buddhist tradition to teach insights not readily conveyed in discursive language. Often they involve a dialogue between student and teacher, as in this example. The teacher featured in this koan is Zhaozhou Congshen (Japanese: Joshu Jushin), who lived in China in the ninth century.
A rather literal translation of the koan is offered above, even though it may be awkward English, in order to point out a few features of the Chinese text not reflected in most translations. The following comments are concerned mostly with the surface meaning of the language, rather than the deeper significance of the koan. The surface meaning is only a starting point for the study of a text such as this, but it may be helpful to devote some attention to the starting point.
After the title, the koan begins with Zhaozhou Heshang (Japanese pronunciation: Joshu Osho), "Master Zhaozhou." The grammatical construction here would appear to be topic-comment, with "Master Zhaozhou" as the topic ("As for Master Zhaozhou…"), and the rest of the koan as the comment.
The next word, yin ("because") is usually not translated in English versions of this koan. It may serve the purpose of pointing out that Zhaozhou's statement concerning the dog and Buddha nature are made in the context of the monk asking the question. Zhaozhou did not go before the assembly of monks at his temple and suddenly announce to everyone that dogs do not have Buddha nature. Rather, he responded to a monk's question on a specific occasion. The "because" may be there lest we misinterpret Zhaozhou's answer as a general statement about dogs and Buddha nature.
The version of this koan that appears in another koan collection, the Book of Serenity, does not include the "because." Also, it does not use the topic-comment construction, but rather subject-verb-object ("A monk asked Master Zhaozhou...."). In that version, Zhaozhou is asked the same question by two different monks, and he gives each monk a different answer. His answers are apparently contradictory, so that author did not need to emphasize that his statements are to be taken within their contexts.
The monk's question includes two important Chinese words, you ("to have," "there is") and wu ("not to have," "there is not"). When used as verbs in conjunction with an explicit subject (in this instance, "dog"), you and wu mean "have" and "not have." When used as verbs without a subject, they can mean "there is" and "there is not." However, when used without an explicit subject in a context where a previously mentioned subject is implied, they can still mean "have" and "not have." Zhaozhou's answer is an example of that last scenario, because it is an answer to a question, echoing the verb from the question. In that context, the subject from the question is implied.
Sometimes, in ancient philosophical contexts, you and wu are construed as nouns meaning "being" and "nonbeing" (or, as the scholar A.C. Graham prefers to translate them, "that which is, something" and "that which is not, nothing"). This koan does not present such a grammatical context.
While most Chinese verbs are negated by placing the word bu (不, "not") before the verb, you is a special case in that it is negated in ancient Chinese by replacing it with wu (rather than "buyou").
Wu can also function as a prefix meaning "without" in compound words.
The monk's question is formed by a positive statement ("Even a dog has Buddha nature") followed by a negation of the verb ("not have"). This is a common grammatical construction for forming questions in Chinese. The question tag does not really need to be translated, but it is rendered here as "or not" to convey the literal sense.
Chinese does not have a single word for "yes" or for "no." The most common and concise way to answer in the positive is to state the verb from the question (in the version of the koan in the Book of Serenity, Zhaozhou's answer to the first monk is "You," meaning "[It] has," which is equivalent to "Yes" in this context). The most common and concise way to answer in the negative is to state the negation of the verb from the question, which is what Zhaozhou does here. His answer, "Wu" (literally "[It] does not have") is equivalent to "No."
Zhaozhou's answer appears to contradict the standard Buddhist doctrine that all sentient beings have Buddha nature. There are many ways this could be interpreted. Some point out that it is misleading to speak of beings as "having" Buddha nature, as if beings and Buddha nature are separate things. Some infer that Zhaozhou is shaking the monk out of his attachment to the literal words of doctrine. It is said that this "no" is intended to disrupt the monk's (and our) habit of conceptual thinking and point to reality beyond.
Some English translations of this koan do not translate Zhaozhou's answer, but render it as "Mu," which is the Japanese pronunciation of wu. This may create the impression that his answer is not translatable, but that is misleading. Zhaozhou was asked a question, and his reply is the most ordinary, straightforward and concise way that one could answer in the negative in that language. In the context of this dialogue, the most straightforward English translation of wu/mu would be "No." For this translation, however, I chose "It does not," to try to reflect that the answer echoed the wording of the question.
Translations that render the answer as "Mu," generally do not include "mu" in the translation of the question, even though it is there in the Chinese text. That may create the impression that the monk asks his question in ordinary language, and then Zhaozhou replies with this strange word mu from out of the blue. Actually, the monk says mu first (in the question tag, "or not"), and Zhaozhou's answer echoes it.
Many people seem to have the impression that mu is a special word whose meaning is to unask a question, or that it means "neither yes nor no." Zhaozhou's intention may perhaps have been to unask the monk's question, but this unasking is not a general meaning of the word wu/mu in the Chinese language in which the koan was written. It is from the koan as a whole and from its context within the history of Chan/Zen and the wider history of Buddhism that one might infer that the question was unasked. When Zhaozhou says, "No," it raises the question, "Why did he say, 'No'?" While Zhaozhou's answer may point beyond the surface sense of his words, nevertheless the surface sense is a negative answer to a specific question, expressed with a very ordinary word.
It may be fair to say, however, that the subsequent use of this particular koan has given rise to the use of mu to unask questions or to convey "neither yes nor no" among some Japanese and English speakers who practice or are interested in Zen.
Some English versions of the koan have Zhaozhou shout "Mu!" but the Chinese text does not indicate the manner of his speech.
Having learned that at least on the surface, wu/mu means "does not have," we might next consider this warning from Wumen's verse on the koan:
As soon as you concern yourself with "have" (you) or "not have" (wu),
You lose your body and lose your life.
Writing a poem, there’s a pause, moving wet leaves to the side in a cup of stones, so it can refill. The words appear out of nowhere. Sometimes I don’t even know what they mean until much later. A poem I plan — or if I seize the meaning and shape it to what I think its end will be — will feel sterile. The meaning must come and I receive. Or I embody. I believe this is the dynamic quality of True Nature. Appearing. Embodying in the poem. Embodying in thoughts, perceptions, memories.
The poem is not gibberish, and it does come through my life and my mind. The words may come out of nowhere, but they use my memories, my words, wrestle with my issues.
So who writes the poem? It is not just me, the personality I identify with. But it is me. Untangling who is the writer and who the hand is impossible. It is like looking up into the white sky to see where the snow flakes come from. Am I going to see into a realm or a being or even a process that brings the words to me? No, but I still am drawn to look.
William Stafford, a poet who has always seemed a teacher to me, once commented, “I'd give up everything I'd written . . . for a new writing experience.” Writing is not about the poem, with its beauty or insight. It’s about the process of writing the poem, letting the words be given, following them. Time disappears. An image comes, the words to describe it come.
In Taoism and Buddhism there has been a traditional distinction between live words and dead words. Live words are sometimes described as turning words, words that help the mind open. That might mean a koan or a teaching story or a teacher’s instruction. I would say it also might be a poem.
A poem can arouse the unnameable. Writing a poem may arouse it through the process of opening to the words that come from their white sky. Reading a poem, too, may take you to an unsayable space. Evoking the un-nameable is not the only function of poetry, but it is one of them.
Mary Oliver is a poet who often evokes what cannot be said. In one of her poems, “The Humpbacks,” she uses a phrase to push the reader into the wordless. The poem starts
There is, all around us,
of original fire.
You know what I mean.
The sky, after all, stops at nothing, so something
has to be holding
in its rich and timeless stables or else
we would fly away.
Oliver uses the words “You know what I mean” twice in the poem, and she does it so we will access that realm past words in ourselves. I taught the poem to a class of freshmen once, and asked them, was it true, did they know what she meant? These were not sophisticated, literary students but kids just out of little country towns in Oklahoma, many of them fundamentalist. But more than half of them said they did know what Oliver meant, and when they wrote about it, it was clear they did, that something welled up when they heard those words.
When Oliver pushes the people who read her poem to open to the unnameable by saying “this country of original fire” and “You know what I mean,” she is pushing them into the space the poet occupies when writing a poem. We let something come through that we can’t name but can feel in ourselves, moving us.— Sarah Webb has been an editor for Just This for the past year and a half. Her poetry is part of her practice.
A book by the fan on a summer afternoon,
that formed me — lemonade and Swallows and Amazons,
a childhood of summer days and winter nights.
Plato warned us against reading,
such a shock to realize that’s what he meant.
I’ve always loved words,
always been a sucker for the bright, high words,
the story told with dash.
Word-men, that’s who I fall for —
forget to look at the story of their acts.
What do I think about the warnings,
no reliance on words and letters,
there’s not a teacher in all of China,
me, with my poems and my lectures on words and stories?
If I had to say, it’d be this —
anything can be a path, if you make it one.
Sometimes the moon comes right down to the water.
I live in a vegetarian co-op with fifteen and a half other people. I am most jealous of this half. Her name is Cedar and she is 8 months old. I often ask her, as I tickle her feet and ribs, "what's it like to be the true dharma?" She answers with silent, watchful eyes and the unmistakable pure star-light beam of perception.
I write pomes the way Duschamp placed a urinal in an art gallery. Everything is already here. Occasionally, my mind opens up to take notice. The hand moves, ink is spilled, and words couple, together into groups packs pods...
I prefer the haiku form of five-seven-five. When analyzed, it is emptiness. Nothing is already here; only numbers and syllables. When complete, it is everything. The whole world in stanza. And yet, there is no difference.
Haiku are meant to be cherished. They are meant to be forgotten. I often throw them away. Because I am a fool, i believe: the whole world in stanza. This is the same as no pome at all. Make great effort to perceive this.
— daigu 3-18-09
while soundly sleeping
spring exploded like fireworks
on the midnight sky.
there was nothing.
yet all throughout
the silent beat
of orange wings.
During the 5th century B.C.
Ananda would rest in the woodland grove.
The 500 assembled arhat-monks would place
in their midst one vacant seat.
Released from the struggle for personal arhatship,
he would unite with them and joyfully recite in verse
all of the 82,000 dhamma from memory
beginning with the words
Thus I have heard....
During the 6th century
Boddhidharma would step between
the eminent gathering of scholarly scribes
and the luminous jewel throne of Emperor Wu
There is no frost to gather on the clear autumn moon.
During the 7th century
Hui-neng would observe all as void
so closely that his verse would carry him
on a 16-year journey
through mountains of seclusion
carrying the Patriarch's robe closely guarded.
It is neither wind nor banner
but your own mind that flaps.
During the 8th century
Han Shan would leave his cave,
descend the mountain paths
to the monastery to visit his friend Shih-Te
and along the way would paint and carve poems
on bamboo, wood, stones, cliffs, and farmhouse walls.
When ten thousand reasons disappear,
we will finally see who we are.
In the 9th century
would present his student
the silver bowl of snow
and the heron in flight,
it's open wings spread
against the full moon
of a cloudless sky
and would explain that the meaning is not
in the words.
White duckweeds, breeze gentle.
In the 13th century
one evening Eihei Dōgen Zenji
would advise the monks
to avoid popular literature and
write down what is thought
in the mind, even though unpolished,
when sharing words of the dharma-gate.
Before his death he would proclaim
the quivering leap that smashes
a thousand worlds.
In the 14th century
Shuho Myocho would step from the monastery
and go to live amongst peasants for 20 years
under a bridge outside of Kyoto.
Only a melon and the Emperor's
clever words would lure him out.
Evenings I rest,
mornings I play
with each step a pure breeze rises.
In the 17th century
Matsuo Basho would admire
the cherry blossoms of Ueno
and set out on the long and narrow road.
A frog in the water's sound.
In the 18th century
Sengai would retire from his abbotship
at Shokufuji temple, in order to
attend to brush and ink
buddhas, bodhisattvas, sutras, and short verse.
If only there were a pond around here
for me to jump in
and let him hear the splash!
During the 19th century
Nantembō would cut his dragon-quelling stick
from a nandina bush.
He would wander the countryside
challenging resident priests to
dharma battles and chasing those who lacked
true understanding from their temples.
His bold calligraphy
like the plum tree slow to bear fruit
would not ripen until after age 50.
The dragon cries at dusk
the tiger roars at dawn.
In the mid-20th century
seated beneath a solitary North Carolina
farmland pine in the frost
Kerouac would word the dharma of allrightness
and the essence of reality
forever and forever as it had always been.
For the 50 years that followed
the unpublished notes would rest askance.
The verses of a sihibhuto, cooled.
Towards the end of the 20th century
and near the end of Ginsberg himself
he would see even
the sky the day the night god consciousness
the mind life and death words lovers murderers
spies governments army money secret police starvation
tyrant radio and hell's televised
covered with words.
A sunflower now a locomotive,
a locomotive a sunflower.
— Glen Snyder, from the Houston Zen Center, is a poet and translator of Spanish poetry.